This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.
Increase the Tension of a Scene
Building Peaks in the Story
Build the story toward the climax by ramping up conflict in scenes.
Novels are a series of peaks and valleys, the ebb and flow of tension. If the story were all tension, it would tire the reader out. If the story were all tension-less, it would be boring.
A novelist should build the tension of the story in each peak and balance that with a valley.
But each peak should build to a higher point of tension than the one before.
Combine Conflicts Into a Single Scene
Sometimes, a story will have several separate scenes, but each scene’s tension level is the same.
Consider combining scenes.
The addition of obstacles will make the scene worse and worse, ramping up the tension rather than having separate scenes of the same tension level.
For example, a detective is searching for a lost child. In one scene, he confronts a drug dealer. In a second scene, he asks a prostitute. In the third scene, the pimp tells him he’s in over his head.
All three scenes have about the same amount of tension.
But what if you have the detective talking to the drug dealer, and the prostitute arrives to buy drugs. The dealer tells the detective the prostitute knows something. The prostitute argues with the drug dealer. The fight attracts her pimp, who yells at the prostitute to keep her mouth shut about the child. The pimp’s threat that the detective is in over his head ends the scene.
Combining characters in one scene ramps up the tension more than three separate scenes.
Make the Situation Dangerous
The more dangerous the scene is to your character, the more it forces him to action, which invites obstacles.
“Action” does not necessarily mean explosions and flying bullets. Go with the flow of your genre.
But make a situation where your character has to do something, whether it’s an office worker quitting her job or a spy infiltrating a research lab. Create an obstacle to that action. And that will ramp up the conflict.
Add a Ticking Clock
Nothing increases tension like a time limit. In addition to the obstacles in the character’s path, the knowledge that time is running out will increase stress in the character and the reader.
Create a good reason for urgency—make your character have to act now versus tomorrow or next week.
Foreshadow When Possible
A writer doesn’t want to overdo this or go to melodramatic lengths, but when you can subtly foreshadow events or issues that will appear in the climax, it will tighten the thread of the story.
Build up the sense of impending disaster with key words and phrases. Utilize your antagonist, if you have one, and increase his strength or successes. Box in your protagonist more and more to focus the conflict toward the climax.
Prioritize Your Conflict
It might help to summarize each scene on an index card and lay them out in front of you. Rank the conflict levels for each scene from 1-10, and see if the levels increase as the story increases.
If a scene has a low conflict level but is closer to the climax, while a higher conflict scene is near the beginning of the novel, consider switching them.
Pace Your Conflict With Emotional Language
The style of writing itself can increase tension in a story. As the story progresses, stronger words and more urgent writing can convey rising conflict as well as the events themselves.
Overall, control the conflict and tension levels in your story so that each peak is higher than the one before.